BANGUI, Central African Republic — When you first fly in to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, you are immediately confronted with the reality of the humanitarian crisis facing this troubled country. Tens of thousands of people have made their home in a sprawling camp at the airport, and the makeshift shelters lie just feet from the edge of the runway. It is a very unsettling site, and a perfect introduction to my visit to this country.
My Refugees International colleague and I have spent the last two weeks in the Central African Republic (also known as CAR), assessing the needs of those who have been forced to flee their homes due to violence during the past year. Last March, a group of predominantly Muslim rebels known as the Seleka overthrew the central government. In the months that followed, the Seleka terrorized villages throughout the country, killing civilians, burning homes and churches, and looting hospitals. Many terrified villagers fled into the bush, where they tried to survive for months on end with no support. Others fled to the major cities, seeking shelter in makeshift camps.
In December, a group known as the anti-Balaka rose up against the Seleka. This, along with a military intervention by African Union and French forces, forced the rebels from power. What followed was a brutal series of revenge attacks by the mainly Christian anti-Balaka against the country’s Muslim population, forcing even more people to flee. At the height of the crisis, nearly a million people were displaced from their homes, seeking shelter in camps around the country. Although some of those have begun to return home, there are still more than 600,000 people who remain displaced inside the country.
Here in Bangui, the displaced live in dozens of camps scattered throughout the city. The largest by far is the camp at the airport, known as M’Poko. It is hard to know exactly how many people currently live at the camp. Estimates put the number at around 60,000. And the conditions in which those people live are desperate.
Wandering around M’Poko, you get a sense of just how haphazardly this camp came into being. This is not a well-organized, well-planned refugee camp. This is a camp that was created spontaneously and quickly by those who first sought shelter here. There are a wide variety of makeshift shelters, some covered by sticks and brush, others covered by U.N.-issued tarps, and still others with no real covering whatsoever. Aid agencies have tried to impose some kind of order on the camp, but this is a very difficult challenge in a context as complex as this. Basic health and sanitation services are being provided, but other assistance is extremely limited.
There are currently no organized food distributions taking place in this camp, so for the most part, the residents have to rely on themselves to survive. There are makeshift markets at several locations throughout M’Poko, where residents can buy food and other items. The challenge for many is to find the money to do so.
During our visit to M’Poko, we meet Bawa, a thirty-year-old man living in the camp with his wife and young daughter. They fled to the camp in December as violence engulfed their Bangui neighborhood, and have been living here ever since. Bawa used to be a chicken seller, but no longer has any chickens to sell. The family now has very little, and survive on the money Bawa’s wife makes selling beignets on the city streets. Although they do venture out into Bangui during the day, they come back each night to the camp — too afraid to return home to their still unstable neighborhood. Bawa is frustrated. He doesn’t want to stay in M’Poko. But he doesn’t have another option.
Providing that other option is the challenge facing aid agencies and the government. It is untenable for people to continue to stay at M’Poko. When the rainy season begins in the next few weeks, the camp will become an unlivable mess of mud and sewage rife with water-borne diseases. Aid agencies have deliberately scaled back their services in order to discourage people from settling here. But that doesn’t help the people who are already in the camp and unwilling or unable to return home.
An alternative must be found for these people as soon as possible. Although some aid workers whom we met with spoke somewhat optimistically about the rain itself forcing people out of the camp, in our conversations with people in M’Poko, it becomes clear that this scenario is highly unlikely. Many of these residents, like Bawa, still believe that their homes and neighborhoods are not safe — a fear that isn’t entirely unfounded as outbreaks of violence still occur in Bangui on an almost daily basis.
This is why it is imperative that an alternative site for the residents of M’Poko be established now. There has been a lot of discussion amongst aid agencies and the government about this over the past several weeks, but as yet no action has been taken. The rains are coming, and will not wait. Bawa and the other residents of M’Poko need a solution. And they need it now.